Right Wing Violence: My Stories

Ad from Jesse Kelly, Gabrielle Giffords' electoral opponentNote: I started writing this on October 26th, 2010, but put it aside to focus on some other writing projects. The murder spree by Jared Loughner compelled me to revisit this topic.

Part 1 of 2.

Regardless of whether Loughner was incited into committing murder by Right wing rhetoric or the paranoiac rantings of Glenn Beck/Limbaugh et al., it's time to confront the fact that American's Right wing conservatives are stoking hate and encouraging violence through thinly-veiled (if not outright) calls for sedition and revolution and demonizing the political Left. It's also important to point the false equivalences suggesting the Left is doing the same. It's not, and claims otherwise are factually and unequivocally false.

Here is my commentary from several months ago.

Watching the video of some Rand Paul supporters holding down and stomping on a woman from MoveOn made me think back to my own personal experiences with physical violence from the Right end of the political spectrum.

Lately, I've seen quite a bit of relativism when it comes to the sources of political violence (direct or implied), with conservatives saying their members are no more violent than liberals. But that's disingenuous at best. Historically, liberal and Left-leaning people in the U.S. (excepting some radical elements in the 1960s and 70s) are far less likely to express their political disagreements violently. Progressive liberalism is, by definition, antithetical to violence, embracing diversity of opinion and advocating nonviolence in opposition to war, racism, police brutality, and other assaults on human and civil rights. The rise of the Tea Party movement and the extreme reactions to the election of the nation's first black president have ushered in a new era of violent rhetoric from the political Right, most blatantly in the thinly-veiled endorsements of violent insurrection from some top conservative voices, but also visible in anti-immigrant propaganda and the frequent brandishing of weapons at conservative gatherings. Yet conservatives point to the few isolated instances of "liberal" violence (racist, threatening rhetoric from members of the so-called "new Black Panthers," for one example) to suggest some equivalence. And that is empirically false.

And I have had some personal experience that makes it hard to swallow that false equivalency.

In May of 1989, I was driving through downtown Glen Burnie, Maryland, just south of Baltimore, when I noticed a bunch of guys on a street corner holding signs. As I drove closer, I had a hard time believing what I was seeing. One sign read "Hey yo—is yo black and a criminal—call the NAACP 1-800-Niggers" and the rest were equally offensive. There were about a dozen demonstrators, and most were skinheads in their teens or early 20s, but there were a few kids who couldn't have been ten-years-old. Two bemused adult men were clearly the organizers.

I was stunned by such an openly racist gathering, and decided to see for myself what was going on. I parked nearby and walked to the group. A reporter from the Baltimore Sun was on hand, as were two Anne Arundel County cops. I approached the group and asked them why they were demonstrating. The adult claimed that they were outraged at an inquiry by the NAACP into the fatal shooting of a black, recently paroled convicted murderer, Booker T. Jones, who had been wanted for the abduction and murder of two white children. Jones had been surrounded by police when he wielded a knife and refused to drop it, then lunged at a police officer. He was shot seven times and killed. The NAACP was looking into statements from witnesses that the police continued to shoot him after he was down and delayed medical treatment from paramedics at the scene.

I had a few words with the protesters, and I was called a "nigger lover" and the like. As cars drove by, many drivers honked their horns and gave the skinheads thumbs up, further ratcheting up my incomprehension. I'd encountered plenty of racism growing up in the Baltimore suburbs, but I'd never seen white supremacists rallying in the open and getting public appreciation for stark bigotry. Being the idealistic young man I was, I was compelled to show that their opinions weren't the norm and wouldn't go unchallenged. So I drove to the nearest business, a multiplex movie theater. Many of the employees were young and black, and were outraged when I told them what was happening a few blocks away. They gave me a sheet of poster board and a marker, and I made a simple sign: "Racists Out of Glen Burnie." A bit naive to think that was possible, certainly, but to the point. The kids at the theater started making their own signs and said they'd be out to join me as soon as their shift ended. It was heartening to see them react so quickly and passionately. But my faith in human beings was short-lived.

I returned with my sign and was immediately greeted with derision and mockery from the white supremacists. One of the adults approached me and started asking me my name, where I lived, and so forth—clearly trying to intimidate me. "Why don't we get together, one-on-one, to talk about this," he said. One of the young kids—a boy who looked about eight—kicked me in the shins as he called me a "nigger lover" as the older guys and adults laughed and egged him on. The reporter came up and asked me why I was there, so I told her (and she later misquoted me, making me sound like an idiot; see the attached scan of the article from the Sun). The cops stood at a distance, watching, but saying nothing.

Article from Baltimore Sun

Then one of the older guys stepped up to me. "Faggot," he said. I ignored him. He pushed me backward, but I held my ground. I looked over at the cop. He was watching but didn't react. Then the guy lobbed a punch at me, but I ducked and it barely hit my face. But it was enough to connect and knock me back. I walked over to the cop. "I want to press charges against him for assault." The cop's expression hardened. "There wasn't any problem until you got here," he said. The other cop said, "I didn't see anything."

I approached the reporter. "You saw him hit me," I said. "Right?" She shrugged. "I'm a reporter. I can't do anything about that."

"But you can write about it," I said. She ignored me.

The skinheads laughed and renewed their taunting. I stood my ground a few feet away from them, heartened by the occasional person yelling or honking to support my message. Shortly thereafter, the racist crew packed up and left, but not before threatening me that they would track me down. Then the kids from the theater showed up, signs in hand, only to find they were too late.

I learned a lot that day. Later, when I read the Sun reporter's characterization of the physical assault as a "scuffle"—implying that I reacted violently or may have been partly responsible for being punched in the face—I lost my foolish trust in journalistic "objectivity."

But that was nothing compared to what happened nearly ten years later.

Part 2: Mace in Your Face